Lager,  Marzen

Oktoberfest / Marzen Competition Results

The 2019 Canadian Brewer of the Year season is done, and it’s time to post the competition results for the BJCP 6A Oktoberfest / Marzen I sent into the 2019 competition circuit.

In this post, I’ll first present a summary of the results, followed by a description of the fermentation and packaging steps I used for this beer. Finally, I’ll share the score sheets I received for this version of my BJCP 6A, and offer my thoughts on what I would change if I were to brew this beer again.

Oktoberfest / Marzen Competition Results Summary:

Number of competitions entered: 4

Medals earned: 4 (1 Gold / 2nd place Best of Show, 1 Silver, 2 Bronze).

High Score: 42/50

Low Score: 37/50

Average score: 39.375/50

Recall that I brewed BJCP 6A on May 11, 2019. The plan at the time was to cold ferment with a large pitch WLP833 German Bock Lager yeast and then transfer the still-fermenting beer to a serving keg with 4 gravity points remaining based on the results of a fast ferment test. Fermentation and cold conditioning (lagering) would be conducted in the serving keg, thereby naturally carbonating the beer in an effort to improve the foam stand of the beer which was lacking in the previous version.

While primary fermentation proceeded slowly but steadily at 10C/50F for several days, the fast ferment test chugged along on a stir plate at room temperature and was completely done in a matter of days. A measurement of the FFT sample showed that the final gravity of the beer would be 1.011, right on target and with the original gravity at 1.052, the alcohol by volume would be approximately 5.4% ABV. This ABV would be low and slightly out of style with respect to the BJCP 6A guidelines, but hopefully that would help with the drinkability of the finished beer. The predicted FG also meant that I would ideally transfer the fermenting wort to the serving keg when the gravity of the fermenting wort was at 1.015.

Six days after brewday, I took a sample of the fermenting wort. After allowing a couple of hours to allow the CO2 in the sample to off-gas and rise to room temperature, the gravity was at 1.020, too early to transfer for spunding.

It was at this time I started lowering the temperature by 0.5C/1F per day, to slow down fermentation to prevent missing the spunding gravity window. The slow temperature reduction was also intended to slowly acclimate the yeast to cold conditioning temperatures so that they wouldn’t stop fermenting prematurely and produce fermentation off flavours. By day 10, another gravity reading showed that the fermenting wort was approximately 4 points from terminal so I proceeded to transfer the wort into a sanitized and CO2 purged serving keg to complete fermentation.

I had attached a spunding valve to the serving keg, with the intent of carbonating to around 8 PSI at ~ 4.5C/40F before dropping to near freezing temperatures for an extended lagering phase of several weeks once fermentation was done. However, by week 3 there was absolutely no sign of pressure building, so I took the bold step of removing the valve and allowed the beer to rise to room temperature for a few days. A tug on the pressure release valve showed that significant carbonation pressure had built up, so I returned the keg to the fermentation chamber and slowly lowered the temperature down to 2C/35F to resume cold conditioning.

I don’t know why the spunding valve didn’t do it’s job, but it’s possible that either the valve was defective, or the keg seals weren’t properly seated after transfering the still-fermenting wort to the serving keg, thereby leaking CO2 out (and letting O2 in!), never allowing pressure to build. Going forward, a simple way to make sure the keg seals are tight would be to apply forced CO2 to the keg in post, after filling the keg with still-fermenting wort and attaching the lid.

By the end of July, almost 3 months after brew day, and after drawing several small samples from the serving keg along the way (as you do) it was time to package a couple of bottles for an upcoming competition. Although my Marzen was tasting very good, it was still quite hazy which was disappointing to me, so I fined the beer with gelatine and added ~10ppm Sodium Metabisulphite to the keg to prevent oxidation. By late August, the beer was pouring quite clear from the keg and drinking very nicely.

The first competition I sent my Marzen into was the 2019 Members of Barleyment / Beau’s Oktoberfest Annual Competiton, where it was judged along with 11 other entries in the Dark German Lager category and earned a 3rd place medal.

Feedback from this competition was very positive. The Judges seemed to really like the beer, and awarded it 42/50 and 41/50 points. Both mentioned brilliant clarity, nice malt character and clean fermentation, but also remarked that the head retention was “quick”. As an aside, I found the categorization to be odd as the other beers that placed in that category were Eisbock(1st), Doppelbock (2nd) and Schwarzbier (HM) which are not at all similar to BJCP 6A. My Marzen would have fit better in the “European Darker Lager and Lagered Ale” category which included altbier, Vienna Lager and Kolsch, but it is up to the organizers how flights are combined for competition, and this sometimes happens.

A month later I bottled some entries for the Winnipeg Pro-Am Challenge. I was pleasantly surprised to have my Marzen earn a first place medal out of 24 entries in the Amber Malty and Bitter European beer category, and it also took second place Best of Show out of 398 entries judged in the competition. I was ending the 2019 year on a high note, as I also took 1st place BOS for a Cream Ale (BJCP 1C) in this competition and for a 3rd year in a row I’d won 1st place Best of Show at the Winnipeg Pro-Am Challenge.

Winnipeg Judge #1 gave my Marzen 41/50 points, and commented on the brilliant clarity, head retention and also found that the beer was malty but did not finish sweet which is exactly what I was going for. That same judge also mentioned the hop bitterness / flavour was a touch high for the style, but ticked the “I would pay money for this beer” scoresheet box.

Winnipeg Judge #2 scored my Marzen slightly lower, giving it 39/50 points. The reduction in points was for mouthfeel, where Judge #2 thought that there was a slight astringency and sweetness in the finish, in contrast to Judge #1.

To end the 2019 competion year, I bottled samples of my Marzen to send to the final two Canadian Brewer of the Year competitions, the Saskatoon Headhunters Brew Competition and the GTA Brews 2019 Brewslam.

At the Saskatoon Headhunters Competition, my Marzen earned a bronze medal out of 15 entries in the Amber Lager Category. Judge #1 scored it 38/50 points, suggesting that the beer could be improved by increasing the “dimensionality” of the aroma and increasing the creaminess and body slightly to bring it closer to style. Judge #2 scored the beer 1 point lower than Judge #1, having perceived apple-cider notes in the beer. Judge #2 also implied that the beer may be slightly oxidized.

I have to mention that these were some of the most thoughtful and well written scoresheets I’ve ever received, from any competition. I wish all competition Judges would take the time to fill out scoresheets like this, these were exemplary BJCP scoresheets and the Saskatoon Headhunter Judges must be commended for their thoroughness in this competition.

At the GTA Brewslam, this beer won a 2nd place medal out of 25 entries in the Amber Lager category. The first Judge awarded it 40/50, with no explicit suggestions for improvement. GTA Judge #2 scored my Marzen 3 points lower than GTA Judge #1, with 1 point deducted for appearance due to quick falling head and 2 points deducted for Mouthfeel citing medium-low carbonation.

Discussion and Next Steps

Based on competition scores and medals earned, and that this beer placed in every competition it was entered into, I consider this iteration of BJCP 6A a success. As far as my own assessment, I can modestly say that it was a delicious and very drinkable Marzen which I would brew again, without changing much if anything.

Although the mouthfeel and body were to the low end of the style, and several Judges noticed this, I would be very reticent to make any changes to the recipe or process, other than possibly aim for a slightly higher OG as was my original intent. This is a very dangerous parameter to play with however, as there is a very fine line between making a wonderful, malty, slightly dry and very drinkable Marzen, and creating a sweet, heavy Homebrew that is not all that pleasant to drink.

I would not change the recipe, other than maybe a slight increase in the pilsner base malt to bump up the OG by 2 points, with a corresponding very slight increase of hop bitterness to keep the BU:GU in the finished beer unchanged. I would also not change the yeast strain as I believe WLP833 is the perfect strain for this very malt focused style. I also would keep the fermentation schedule and packaging process identical, but I would make sure to seal the serving keg tightly with CO2 right after transfer, and probably just use the pressure relief valve on the keg to relieve excess pressure instead of the spunding valve to keep things simple and remove another potential point of failure in the system.

For the most part, I believe the foam stand problems that plagued the previous iteration of this beer were addressed with the revised mash schedule. While it’s true that some Judges noted that the foam stand was “quick” others Judges did not, and in the glass poured straight from the keg I found there to be no head retention issues with this beer. I can say with some confidence that the variation in foam stand as the beer was poured from the competition bottles was most likely caused by the bottling process, a technical issue I continue to work on.

Until my next post, I wish you well, and I promise to keep working on improving BJCP styles that are challenging for me through 2020!

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